Saturday, May 26, 2018


When I returned from a trip out of state, tired and my mind devoid of any kind of poetic thought and found a new book of poetry from Pinyon Publishing in my mailbox, I felt an infusion of energy. Where the Waters Take You by Neil Harrison is that kind of infusion. He speaks to my condition with a voice of lucid tones, writing about the natural world and what his clear eyes see in that world.

However, he is at his best when he writes about childhood, drawing readers in from the beginning of Where the Waters Take You in “The Lost Child,” a simple but complex poem about “an entity of perpetual change,” the child who is eventually lost to the world, “still forming and forever adapting/[to]this eternally unfinished home.” In these lines, the reader gets his first glimpse of an underlying wisdom permeating three sections of absorbing verse.

After reading these powerful and unflinchingly honest poems, I surmised that Harrison is a solitaire and a “poet of place” settled in Nebraska. He acknowledges this sense of place in an amusing poem entitled “Already There.” We enter into this idea of regional verse through the lines “I think we all knew he was going somewhere,/the way he’d take off on his tricycle,/though it’s clear now he was already there./On that big red-and-white trike he’d tear/down the sidewalk as fast as he could pedal/and we knew one day he was going somewhere…on his roundabout way to New Orleans, where/he lived for a time, then faced death so well/we all still believed he was going somewhere./Though it’s clear now he was already there.” The poem reminds me of a friend from Alabama who was always riding her tricycle westward to California to “find herself” and ended up in the South writing nostalgically about The Road Home to Alabama. I also thought of Thomas Wolfe who began writing about his native North Carolina while he lived in Europe.

Harrison’s impassioned elegy about death, “Spring Burial in the Sandhills,” reveals how deeply he plunges, then emerges, bringing us a poignant message that deserves numerous readings: “A carnival helix of the great wild birds/spirals upward far to the west,/winged escort singing you/up from the season of planting and birth,/out of the cyclic skein of time, where/what we here consign to the earth/has already flowered.” 

Another favorite of mine is entitled “Addiction,” in which Harrison uses a bird as metaphor — it could stand as a statement for the current obsession with opioids: “Nothing quite so human as this/quest to get higher than ordinary/on whatever wings come to hand —/food, drink, sex, drugs, some/elusive degree of wealth or fame./Gambling on those hollow feathers/fastened with that ancient glue, the dream,/another hero almost touching the sun/begins to awaken, already engaged/in the all too common fall.” Again, we hear the poet’s voice simple, yet complex, profound, yet funny, speaking of human willfulness and the tragic consequences of addiction.

We watch with Harrison as the outdoorsman performs his evening watch in his native Nebraska in the end poem, “The Evening Watch,” where “down through the ages bison died…as the day winds down, in the fading light/the view of that broken ridge brings to mind/a painting of a man at prayer, long ago,/ three friends fast asleep nearby…and from the river bluffs to the horizon and on/the stacked bones watch with me.”  The poet is alone in a wild place at dusk, and he paints a picture as vivid as scenes depicted in Wilderness Essays by the naturalist John Muir, his “sudden plash into pure wildness — baptism in Nature’s warm heart…” Harrison’s poem speaks of his mystic communion with nature, enticing readers to view the loveliness and the mysteries of the natural world.

Neil Harrison has written several books about the natural world: In A River of Wind; Into the River Canyon at Dusk, and Back in the Animal Kingdom. He is a former instructor of English and Creative Writing at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska, and at Northeast Community college in Norfolk Nebraska where he also coordinated the Visiting Writers Series. He now resides in Norfolk, and according to Pinyon Publishing, “makes diamond-willow walking sticks, wine from various wild fruits, and excursions to the local fields and streams with his third Deutsche Drahthaar, the Happy Dog.”

More kudos to Pinyon for publishing another banner poet. Available at Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Dorothy Greenlaw Marquart and son Paul

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and I plan to include a few excerpts about my mother from the introduction to Their Adventurous Will, Profiles of Memorable Louisiana Women, a book I wrote in 1984, in a sermon I’ll preach. Since the introduction is on my screen this morning, I felt that a redo of it would be appropriate to include in “A Words Worth” to celebrate this auspicious occasion:

“A few years ago, in the silence of too much winter, my mother passed away. Her death shocked and grieved me, and in attempting to transcend the offense of her death, I wrote a tribute to her in my column, “Cherchez la femme,” which was featured in the Daily Iberian, New Iberia, Louisiana. In writing about Mother, some of the qualities which marked her as an outstanding woman became more apparent to me and that recognition of her uniqueness moved me toward writing this book. She isn’t among the women highlighted in the following essays, but I feel that a small cameo of her life belongs in the introductory notes to this volume.

A friend and I were once discussing our mothers, and I asked her if she remembered the scene in Peter Pan in which Tinker Bell is dying and Peter asks for those in the world who believe in fairies to clap their hands.

“Well,” I told my friend, “my mother would have been the first to clap her hands.”

She was fantasy itself; she saw sprites dancing in open fires, drew pictures of gnomes painting the woodlands and created pastels of quaint cliff dwellings where other-world spirits lived.

My mother loved words and books. When I was three years old, she would seat me, cross-legged in the middle of a small kitchen, and open for me giant editions of Mother Goose, A Child’s Garden of Verse, and Marigold Garden, laughing at friends who often dropped in to proclaim that I was backward because I didn’t talk and only sat quietly, absorbing the book characters she knew I’d remember for a lifetime.

She read aloud the entire series of Uncle Wiggly in the Cabbage Patch, The Little Colonel, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Greek Legends, Black Beauty and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, even after all of the children in our family had learned to read.

Every month for years, Mother would take one of the three children in our family to Claitor’s Bookstore in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to choose two books for our nightly reading session. She was the first family member to open the books, touching the pictures with credulous delight. My mother began to fly in the heavens long before Mary Poppins opened her first umbrella to make her wonderful flights! For her, I wrote my first story at age six. I remember only that the tale concerned a small child who opened a door in a tree and found herself in a fantasy world similar to Alice’s Wonderland.

My mother was one of the first Golden Eaglet Girl Scouts in the United States, an honor bestowed on her in the early 1920’s when Girl Scouting was in its infancy. She loved woodlands, flowers, and even garter snakes, one of which became her favorite pet when she camped-out, primitive style, in the Dismals of Alabama after winning a trip to Juliette Low Girl Scout Camp.

One of her greatest legacies to me was a love of the Episcopal Church to which she was deeply devoted after her conversion as a teenager. She single-handedly attempted to establish a mission in my hometown of Franklinton, Louisiana, with its predominantly Baptist and small Roman Catholic population. 

The church was never built, although a sign advertising the mission church still stands on a vacant lot which she had coerced an old-family Franklintonite to donate. She didn’t convert enough Baptists or Roman Catholics to build the church and congregation but she did accomplish some “consciousness-raising” about Anglicanism. While she was working on the project, the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Louisiana introduced her to someone as “that woman with the red-hot poker who gets people moving.”

When Mother was a teenager, she exemplified the phrase which accompanied my graduation picture in my high school annual: “Large, divine and comfortable words.” She loved the syllables and accents of words and would roll them out at inappropriate times as she did following a Baptist Church service when she filed out the door and shook the minister’s hand.

“Dr. Gayer, that was really an excruciating sermon,” she remarked, thinking she had expressed a highly complimentary description of his delivery.

“Well, yes, Miss Greenlaw,” he answered, “come to think of it, it probably was.”

My mother was the only Protestant Jewish mother I knew. When one of her five children became ill, she prepared chicken soup, grape juice ice (grape juice poured into an ice tray and frozen, then sliced), milk toast and caramel pie. In the manner of a traditional Jewish mother (which she wasn’t), taking care of the family was probably her singular life goal. Even after my brothers had grown up and married, they came home to her when they were ill and upset. She died while still looking after two of them.

She was one of the most sensitive persons I’ve ever known; yet she was tough in the tenacious, weather-beaten way of those trees she loved so well.

When I went home for her funeral, some of her friends and family members said to me: “She was too good.” She probably wouldn’t have liked that remark; she didn’t think of her life as role-playing or as some kind of martyr’s legend — she simply believed in St. John the Divine’s words: “Absolute self-giving is the only path from the human to the divine.”
Friends and family also told me: “She was proud of you.” I know she was. I’m proud of her. She gave me the ability to perceive “tongues in trees,” the sight to see “books in the running brooks, sermons in stone and good in everything.” She also gave me a love of nature, music, humor, and imagination.

Mother was buried in a dress with bright red buttons because she not only loved red, she lived red. Vivacious, garrulous, she was a woman who talked back to life situations which would have felled me years ago.

Back in the mid-1960’s, I wrote a poem about my father which was published in American Weave, a literary journal, and my mother showed the tiniest bit of jealousy that I hadn’t published something about and for her. I told her then that I would write a poem about her. I never did. But Their Adventurous Will is for her. Somehow, I think she’ll be able to read it, even without her glasses.”

Happy Mother's Day!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Cradle of the Tennessee Walking Horse

The Walking Horse Hotel
Last week, we rambled again in another small town in Tennessee — Wartrace, an old Native American trail and, in the 1850’s, a stop on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad Line. Wartrace is also the site of the Tennessee Walking Horse industry. We had lunch at the Bellbuckle Cafe in Bellbuckle, Tennessee and afterward decided to drive a few miles further to Wartrace, a village of 650 people that bordered on ghost town status.

The most famous showpiece in Wartrace, an old hotel named the Walking Horse Hotel, which is among downtown buildings now on the National Register of Historic Places, is ghost territory. Several years ago, my son-in-law Brad and I were visiting Wartrace as this small town gem is the site of Gallagher’s Homemade Guitars, and Brad collects beautiful guitars. We decided to explore the Walking Horse Hotel, which was still in business at that time. We were shown several bedrooms off a wide hall upstairs that provoked weird feelings in us as we walked through rooms furnished in style reminiscent of the Old West. We were glad to come out into the light of a summer day after our exploration. My daughter Stephanie had refused to enter the premises as she had sensed “ghosts.” And she was spot-on.

‘Turns out that former guests had seen apparitions in the hallway upstairs in the hotel. But one of the former owners, George Knight, claims that a single ghost, a friendly one he calls Casper, is the apparition of Floyd Carothers, a famous walking horse trainer who once owned the hotel with his wife, Olive. Floyd died in the 1940’s but is still hanging around the premises. 

Joe Peters, the owner of the now-closed hotel, often tells stories he has heard from former guests — stories about hearing the sounds of horse hoofbeats, upstairs and downstairs. However, he, like George Knight, claims the ghosts are friendly ones.

The first National Grand Champion Walking Horse named Strolling Jim who won this championship in 1939 is said to be buried behind the Walking Horse Hotel, but we searched everywhere for a gravesite and couldn’t locate it. I sensed that he was probably the ghost galloping through the old hotel at night.

Wartrace had a reputation as a health resort in the 1800’s. Passengers who traveled on special trains visited the village and enjoyed special bottled water from sulfur springs nearby. During the 20th century, the town had five banks, flour mills, and six hotels for travelers. It serviced 13 trains a day and, even today is connected to Shelbyville by the Walking Horse and Eastern Railroad, still operating part-time.

Although I’m not an aficionado of haunted places, on our return trip to Sewanee, I thought about writing a Stephen King bit of fiction. The trouble is, I don’t really like “ghoulies and ghosts and long-legged beasties — and things that go bump in the night…”

P.S. Joe Peters, the present owner of the Walking Horse Hotel now operates a business next to the hotel called “Spooky’s Pizza.”


Tuesday, May 1, 2018


When a person goes for an annual check-up, and a physician tells her that her blood pressure is near “stroke city,” health measures are called for. Although the condition could be attributable to diet, lack of exercise, stress and all those lack-of-upkeep body factors, I’m inclined to believe that altitude could be a part of this equation. I mean, as I was brought up to be a flatlander and have been living at 25 feet above sea level for six months, then suddenly transfer to a residence 2000 feet above sea level, I’m convinced that this change alone could cause skyrocketing blood pressure. But, as readers know, physicians like to distribute pills, and that was the suggestion for lowering my soaring blood pressure. 

However, I chose to continue losing weight, an accidental consequence of illness, and to walk daily — not on The Mountain where I live temporarily, but down in the Valley where I can look up toward the hills as I walk rather than looking down my nose at those who prefer treading more stable ground below. I wasn’t excited about walking the Sewanee campus or the Goat Mountain Trail but wanted a new place to “saunter” (in contrast to “sprinter”) until I’d built up enough strength to gain the status of a “walker.”

Pink dogwood, redbud, walking trail

I discovered a 13-acre garden on the outskirts of Winchester, Tennessee, only a few minutes from Sewanee, that offered a meditative trail of slightly rolling landscape edged by large river stones and covered by flowering plants, trees, and large boulders. Also, the garden was empty certain hours of the morning when I liked to walk — preferably not on a full stomach. 

The garden is called Harvey’s Garden and is the handiwork of Handley and Becky Templeton, son and daughter-in-law of Harvey Templeton. Handley and his wife carried out the vision of his father for a contemplative garden. The third time I sauntered in the garden, I met a man walking along, picking up items of trash scattered about the trail. 

“What’s your job?” I asked, and he appeared to hide a smile.

“I’m in Finance,” he said, “and my wife and I created this garden. My name is Handley.”

“Are you the son of John Templeton?”

“No, I’m his nephew,” he replied.

I felt foolish because I’d wrongly assumed he was the yard man. I knew, of course, that when drivers ascend the highway leading from the Valley up to The Mountain at Sewanee what comes directly into their view is the temple at the peak of The Mountain where the Templeton Library and a statue of John Templeton, the famous fund manager, banker, and philanthropist, stands. 

We chatted a few minutes, and Templeton told me about a second garden that the Templetons had established near the Winchester Country Club. I visited that garden the following day, but it lacked the shade and the abundant foliage of the first garden. I “sauntered” that trail also, but today I returned to the first one, and Dr. Sullivan took photographs of some of the more colorful plants. I especially like the red leafed redbud with its heart-shaped leaves, and the lavender rhododendron, along with ginkgo, crepe myrtle, hydrangea and a beautiful horse chestnut tree. Crows in nearby trees followed me on the trail and kept complaining about my invasion of their territory; at one point, diving toward me.

Granite boulder, coral red honeysuckle,
horse chestnut, rhododendron
Although the site is perhaps a fifteen-minute drive down The Mountain, and gasoline prices climb lately, the Valley has become my favorite place to walk. My blood pressure has dropped to within normal range for an 83-year old, thanks to the beautiful site of Harvey’s Garden and a sudden burst of sunny weather.